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Boris Johnson said the UK is “on the side” of the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, welcoming her to No 10 as international pressure continues to mount on the country’s authoritarian regime.
The autocratic government of Alexander Lukashenko has been under scrutiny following the treatment of exiled Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya and the death of Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov – found hanged in a park in Ukraine.
After meeting Ms Tsikhanouskaya at Downing Street on Tuesday, the prime minister told her: “We are very much on your side, very much in support of what you are doing. We are committed to supporting human rights and civil society in Belarus.”
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she wanted to see “more pressure” from the UK and other western leaders on Mr Lukashenko, claiming a non-violent transition to democracy from the “hell” of his regime was possible.
The pro-democracy leader suggested that imposing more economic sanctions on the Belarusian government could lead to change. “We want more support, more pressure, more assistance, more solidarity,” she said.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya claims to have won last year’s presidential election in Belarus, which she condemned as “rigged”. But Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, claims he won, forcing the opposition leader to flee to Lithuania after a crackdown on protesters.
Her meeting at No 10 came as Ukrainian police launched an investigation into the death of Vitaly Shishov – the head of an organisation helping Belarusians fleeing persecution – who was found hanged in a park near his Kyiv home on Monday.
Saying she was “devastated” by his death, the Belarusian opposition leader said it was too early to say whether he was murdered. “I’m sure everyone knows who is responsible,” she said. “It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe.”
When asked if she suspected if the Lukashenko regime or a regime ally such as Russia may be responsible, she said: “We have to wait for the investigation.”
Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she understood she could “disappear at any moment”. She said that if this happened the democratic movement she had started in Belarus and among the Belarusian diaspora “will continue without me”.
Police in Ukraine are treating Mr Shishov’s death as suspicious, possibly a murder dressed up as a suicide. The activist ran the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU), an organisation helping those who have fled Belarus find accommodation, work and legal advice in Kyiv.
The BDU said security cameras showed Mr Shishov leaving his home at 9am on Monday, and that he would normally have returned an hour later. His colleagues scoured the neighbourhood where he used to run but could not find any traces of him.
“There is no doubt that this was an operation planned by Chekists [state-security operatives] to liquidate a Belarusian who presented a true danger to the regime,” the organisation stated.
The treatment of Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has also focused international attention on autocratic rule in Belarus. Ms Tsimanouskaya has been granted a visa by Poland after saying she feared for her safety at the Tokyo games.
The drama unfolded after Tsimanouskaya hit out at how officials were managing her team – setting off a massive backlash in state-run media in Belarus, where the authorities relentlessly crack down on critics.
Her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, fled to Ukraine on the same day, saying that despite just being “normal sports people”, the pair were at risk of political persecution in their home country.
With the events concerning Ms Tsimanouskaya and her husband coinciding so closely with the death of Mr Shishov, there had been speculation that the incidents may have been linked.
Yet The Independent spoke to a representative, who did not wish to be named, of a separate Ukraine-based Belarusian human rights organisation helping people flee the country, who said that their organisation was in fact involved in helping Mr Zdanevich leave Belarus.
On Tuesday the Foreign Office called on Mr Lukashenko to commit to fresh elections, a year on from the disputed poll. A spokesman said: “Our message is clear: the Lukashenko regime must commit to meaningful dialogue and new elections.
“They must allow the Belarusian people the freedom to choose their own government and democratically decide their own future.”
Mr Johnson told Ms Tsikhanouskaya his government “strongly supports you”, pointing to the fact that the UK was among the first to announce sanctions after the hijacking of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich from a diverted Ryanair flight in May.
The UK, the US and Canada all imposed travel bans and asset freezes against senior-ranking officials in the Belarusian regime after the detention of Mr Protasevich.
The opposition leader welcomed the existing sanctions, but told reporters after her meeting that she wanted the UK to help create “multiple points of pressure” on the regime – including more political pressure. “Be with us, it’s your responsibility,” she said.
“I absolutely believe in a non-violent transition of power,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya said after a meeting Belarusian diaspora groups in London. “What is going on in Belarus is our pain – we want this hell finished as soon as possible in our country.”
She added: “When we put enough pressure on the regime there will be no other way out. I really believe Belarus can be a success story of a peaceful transition of power.”
Mr Lukashenko, who said in 2012 that he was “the last dictator in Europe”, has sought support from Russian president Vladimir Putin during recent pro-democracy protests, which he cast as an attempt by the west to stoke a revolution. He has also dismissed Ms Tsikhanouskaya as a “housewife”.